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Occupational safety and health

Last edited: July 08, 2020

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Ending violence and harassment in the world of work is closely linked to the promotion of occupational safety and health. In this sense, the WHO Healthy Workplace Framework considers both the physical and the psychosocial work environment, and the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-SOHA) notes women victims of violence and harassment may suffer physical or psychological health problems, which affect their work performance and may result in their taking time off work (EU and OSHA, 2011).[1] Also, inadequate workplace policies may increase workers’ exposure to a specific form of violence and harassment and affect their occupational safety and health. For example, night shifts in isolated areas may subject workers to situations of vulnerability when travelling to and from work, and restricted access to toilet breaks may lead to physical and psychological health problems, as well as being denigrating in and of itself.

OSH programmes and risk assessments are important entry points to integrate issues of violence and harassment and gender equality into prevention programmes. For example, the FWF’s violence prevention programme led to improved access to fire safety exits after women garment workers complained about being groped or sexually harassed by men who were using the same exit during fire drills (Morris and Pillinger, 2018).

Adverse working conditions are increasingly being defined as occupational risks to be tackled through OSH and management policies. In Belgium, for example, sexual harassment and violence are principally dealt with as psychosocial risks under the Act of 4 August 1996 on well-being of workers in the performance of their work. Under the Act, it is considered that stress, violence, harassment and sexual harassment at work are situations that can lead to psychosocial risks at work, and that such risks may result from elements of work organization, job content, working conditions, living conditions at work and interpersonal relationships at work.[2]

Promising practices show the important role that OSH measures can play in preventing violence and harassment against women at work:

  • Adopting a gender-responsive approach to OSH programmes and risk-assessment that acknowledges gender power inequalities, identifies specific causes of violence and harassment against women at work, and tackles further risks faced by workers in situations of vulnerability, particularly regarding intersectional discrimination.
  • Establishing joint workplace occupational safety and health committees, ensuring a gender perspective to their mandate and agenda that allows for addressing situations that make women unsafe, and a proactive role in education and prevention.
  • Developing gender-responsive workplace guidelines, manuals or checklists on violence and harassment against women. These may address prevention, management and intervention, carrying out of risk assessments, as well as reintegration of women victims of violence and harassment.
  • Providing training for OSH committee members that addresses the forms of violence and harassment particularly experienced by women and includes practical tools on how to communicate and consult with women.
  • Adopting a comprehensive approach to the identification of factors leading to violence and harassment against women, which may include work organization and content, working conditions, and interpersonal relationships at work, amongst other areas.

 Violence and harassment against women integrated into occupational safety and health


Gender and risk factors at work

The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) provides a Chart of Risk Factors for Harassment and Responsive Strategies (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 2016).[3] Amongst the risk factors are the following:

-         homogenous workforce;

-         young workforces;

-         workplaces with “high value” [4] employees;

-         significant power disparities;

-         workplaces that rely on customer service or client satisfaction, such as tip-waged work;

-         isolated workplaces;

-         workplaces where alcohol consumption is tolerated or encouraged.

 For each risk, the Chart provides indicators to identify each of the risk factors, information on why they may lead to harassment and specific practical strategies to reduce such risks of harassment.

Ontario Occupational Safety and Health Act and its regulations

The Ontario Occupational Safety and Health Act and its regulations on harassment and violence include a comprehensive approach setting out the responsibility of employers, in cooperation with workers, to prevent workplace violence and harassment, third-party violence and domestic violence at work. The law aims to change workplace culture so that violence and harassment of any kind is not tolerated. It also focuses on the following:

  • The importance of prevention;
  • Early resolution and ensuring that employees have the right to choose the avenue for resolution;
  • Predictable timeframes for each step of the resolution process.
  • Acknowledging that there is a continuum of violent and harassing behaviours, ranging from teasing and unwanted advances to assault;
  • Ensuring the privacy and confidentiality of all employees is safeguarded during and following a workplace investigation;

Guidance has also been drawn up by the Ministry of Labour, including a Code of Practice, sample polices, information for employers and workers, and other guidance materials on implementing the law.[5]

South African OSH representatives trained to detect violence against women (Cited in ILO, 2017e)

An innovative programme to train OSH representatives in violence prevention in farms and factories, where many women work, has been implemented by trade unions. The project was supported by the Food and Allied Workers’ Union (FAWU) and the National Union of Food Beverage Wine Spirits and Allied Workers (NUFBWSAW), run in cooperation with representatives of the South African Department of Labour and representatives of several employers’ organizations. This is an example of how violence at work can be addressed by specially-trained OSH representatives. The project has contributed to the training of regional safety and health representatives who have been given access to the farms. Union representatives raise awareness with members on gender-based violence and sexual harassment, which is prevalent on many farms. However, workers’ difficult working conditions and lack of job security make it difficult for victims to come forward.

Protecting the rights of home-based workers in Bangladesh: the Occupational Safety, Health and Environment Foundation (OSHE)

The OSHE Foundation is a specialized labour foundation that promotes the safety of home-workers in the textile sector. In September 2016, OSHE established the programme “Decent Work for Home-based Workers at Textile & Garments (T&G) Supply Chain”, who face discrimination and violence disproportionately, with the aim to improve their occupational safety and health.  Through cooperatives and self-help groups, and the formation of a national Violence Against Women Committee, it has been possible to improve awareness and reduce gender-based violence and inequality. The project has also worked on economic violence, such as withholding of pay, and has ensured that women receive their pay directly, rather than it being delivered to their husbands.

OSHE has supported 3,150 home-based workers through 10 cooperatives and 150 self-help groups. A further 12,600 home-based workers have indirectly benefited from these actions across the country. Through the violence against women Committees, women home-based workers have received training, and they now participate in local level social dialogue. In some areas, women experiencing domestic violence have been assisted. [6]

Sexual harassment as an OSH issue in the building and construction sector in the Philippines[7]

In the Philippines, the National Union of Building and Construction Workers (NUBCW) has addressed sexual harassment and HIV and AIDS as a part of OSH awareness and training under the Non-traditional Skills Training Project (2004-2010). The introduction of the landmark Anti-Sexual Harassment Act of 1995 gave recognition to sexual harassment in the workplace. Unions point out that, because of lobbying and awareness-raising of Philippine trade unions, sexual harassment has become an OSH issue in the workplace, increasingly recognized by employers.

Risk management: Trades Union Congress Gender Sensitivity Checklist

The United Kingdom Trades Union Congress (TUC) has drawn up a Gender Sensitivity Checklist for OSH representatives (Trades Union Congress, 2017). It includes the following questions related to risk management:

  • “Do risk assessments take account of sex and gender differences?”
  • “Have all people involved in risk assessment and risk management been trained to be aware of sex and gender differences affecting men’s and women’s health and safety at work?”
  • “Are any special reproductive health concerns of women and men such as work-related issues relating to fertility, menstruation (including providing female sanitary hygiene disposal facilities), menopause, breast cancer or hysterectomy adequately and sensitively addressed?”
  • “Are harassment (including sexual harassment) and bullying treated as health and safety issues?”
  • “Are risks of violence assessed, including concerns about working alone on site or away, or late into the evening, and access to safe parking or transport home?”

[1] See also: EU-OSHA (2016) Sexual harassment and violence in the workplace – explained in infographics. Available at: https://osha.europa.eu/en/highlights/sexual-harassment-and-violence-workplace-explained-infographics.

[2] Act of 4 August 1996 on well-being of workers in the performance of their work (as amended by the act of 28 February 2014 supplementing the act of 4 August 1996 on the prevention of psychosocial risks at work, including violence, harassment and sexual harassment at work (Belgian Official Gazette 28 April 2014).

[3] See Chart of Risk Factors for Harassment and Responsive Strategies: https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/task_force/harassment/risk-factors.cfm

[4] According to the EEOC (2016), “high value” employees are those that are, or are perceived to be, of high economic value to the employer.  

[5] See Ministry of Labour website ‘Workplace Violence and Workplace Harassment’ with guidance on occupational safety and health: https://www.labour.gov.on.ca/english/hs/topics/workplaceviolence.php

[6] Information provided in an interview with Saki Rezwana, Chair of OSHE, Bangladesh.

[7] Case study prepared by Building and Woodworkers’ International (BWI) for Actrav Project cited in Pillinger (2017a).

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